Molinari on the Penguins: Number crunched

No matter how you figure it, the club will need a stronger second half if it wants to be playing in April

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The Penguins went 20-10-4 during their final 34 games last season, and that surge allowed them to win the Atlantic Division and claim the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff field.

Match that run during what's left of the 2008-09 season and maybe -- just maybe -- they'll make it back into the playoffs. Barely.

That would give the Penguins, who are 23-21-4 and have 50 points, 94 points at the end of the season. That's how many Boston earned while claiming the final spot in the East last spring, although the current occupant of eighth place, Carolina, is on pace to earn just 87.

Now, depressing numbers are pretty common at this time of year -- hey, it's the season for sub-freezing temperatures and filing tax returns -- but it has to be particularly discouraging for the Penguins to realize that they likely will have to go 10 games over .500 the rest of the way when they've only managed to be two over through the first 48 games.

Still, the Penguins are nowhere near mathematically eliminated, and making a case for why they can expect to qualify is no tougher than making one for why they won't, as evidenced by the following:

Five reasons they'll make it

1. Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Sitting out the playoffs seems almost inconceivable for a team that reached the Stanley Cup final the previous spring -- never mind that more than a few Cup losers have done just that -- and even moreso when its lineup includes guys who rank No. 1 and No. 2 in the NHL scoring race.

2. Marc-Andre Fleury. He allowed three goals during his final three starts before the all-star break, stopping 92 shots in the process. Fleury did his best work last season during the stretch drive and first three rounds of the playoffs, so he's proven he can produce under pressure.

3. More healthy bodies. Mostly because it's hard to imagine they could have fewer than they have so far.

4. Change they can believe in. Coach Michel Therrien and his staff made some tactical adjustments a week or so before the All-Star break, and when the Penguins executed a 1-2-2 trap effectively, the results were reflected on the scoreboard. The formula for winning is in place; the key now is to put it into practice on a regular basis.

5. Sergei Gonchar. He is the Penguins' best defenseman, and should be back in about a month after recovering from shoulder surgery. He'll show up just in time to give the Penguins the boost they'll need.

Five reasons they won't

1. Home-ly record. The Penguins are 11-11-2 at Mellon Arena. Playing .500 hockey on home ice doesn't cut it, unless the team finds a way to get about three-quarters of the points available to it in away games. And the Penguins are a decent, but hardly dominant, road club.

2. Special teams. If the Penguins got a point for every time their power play let them down this season, they'd have clinched the Presidents' Trophy already. And their penalty-killing is solidly in the bottom third of the league rankings.

3. Broken wings. Petr Sykora is the only winger -- at least among the guys who play there full-time -- to score with any sort of consistency. Miroslav Satan, who has one goal in the past 17 games, has the ability to make a difference, but has shown no inclination to do so.

4. Nice to see ya. Teams didn't like facing the Penguins last season because their overall grit and toughness made them an unpleasant team to play against. If this were football, however, the 2008-09 Penguins might be the club most opponents would want to schedule for Homecoming.

5. Sergei Gonchar. He is the Penguins' best defenseman, but won't be back for about a month after recovering from shoulder surgery. He'll show up a bit too late to give the Penguins the boost they'll need.

The missing 'Z' factor

Mike Zigomanis is one guy who won't have an impact -- not a direct one, anyway -- on how the Penguins fare during the final two-plus months of the regular season, since he's facing a lengthy rehabilitation period after undergoing shoulder surgery.

Still, for someone who has operated well below the radar for most of his pro career, Zigomanis had a profound impact on the Penguins during the 22 games he played for them after being acquired from Phoenix for a sum lower than the waiver fee. Perhaps as little as $1, in fact.

He was the Penguins' best faceoff man, and his ability to win draws -- he went 158-93, a success rate of 62.9 percent -- contributed mightily to their 13-5-4 record when he was in the lineup.

"He was a great fit for us," general manager Ray Shero said. "Our scouts did a really good job of identifying him, for the role we needed, and Mike did a great job."

Zigomanis will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and Shero won't commit to offering him another contract. But he definitely isn't ruling it out, either.

"He certainly filled the need we [had]," Shero said. "We'll see where we are moving forward."

Dave Molinari can be reached at .


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